Thursday, June 7, 2012

Welcome to Wes Anderson's dollhouse

Moonrise Kingdom is intermittently amusing, distinctive and not always easy to digest.

I loved director Wes Anderson's last movie, an animated adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox, a children's story by Roald Dahl. For me, over-the-top admiration for an Anderson movie isn't the norm. Watching Anderson's latest -- Moonrise Kingdom -- reminded me that my responses to Anderson's work usually are more complicated and far more mixed than with most directors.

Typically, I find myself admiring Anderson's skills and impressed by what seems to be his unwavering commitment to the peculiarity of his own sensibilities. Inevitably, there will be places in an Anderson film where I chuckle, perhaps ruefully. These amusing moments often involve Bill Murray, who has appeared in such Anderson films as Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, The Royal Tenenbaums and, of course, Rushmore.

But if Anderson's audience divides into fans and non-fans, I lean away from fandom.

You probably can see where I'm headed in writing about Moonrise Kingdom, perhaps the most Andersonian of Anderson's films, a tiny story built around artful set decoration, distinctive imagery and a story that seems to be taking place in a universe composed of elements that have been tweaked just enough to throw them out of whack. The look of a Scout camp in Moonrise Kingdom, for example, suggests a Norman Rockwell painting -- only drained of nostalgic exultation.

For me, watching an Anderson movie is like marching at attention rather than walking. There's not much room for meandering. Anderson's works seem made to be appreciated in a certain way, and even when I think I see what Anderson is getting at, I have trouble totally connecting to his movies.

This time, Anderson tells the story of Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward). What's different about Sam and Suzy's love-at-first-sight tale? Sam and Suzy are 12-year-olds making their way through the summer of 1965. They fall in love before either their bodies or their minds are prepared for romance.

Sam, we learn, is an orphaned member of the Khaki Scouts, a stand-in for the Boy Scouts. He's attending scout camp on the fictional island of New Penzance, off the Massachusetts coast. Suzy Bishop lives on the island with her family -- mom, dad and three brothers. Suzy and her siblings listen to Benjamin Britten recordings on her portable phonograph. She often has her nose buried in a book. On the surface, things look normal enough, but the rooms of the Bishop house can seem like isolation chambers.

It's hardly surprising that Suzy's parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) object when their daughter runs off with Sam. Suzy's parents enlist the help of the local sheriff (Bruce Willis), who also happens to be having an affair with McDormand's character. Sam's scoutmaster (Edward Norton) frets about the situation, and a social worker (Tilda Swinton) threatens to return Sam to foster care or maybe place him in an orphanage.

The adults in the movie are not quite ogres nor are they exemplary. Both Murray and McDormand are playing attorneys, characters who have acquired material success, and who want to expose their children to culture, but who also seem miserable -- at least in the non-emotive way of most Anderson-created characters. The trick for Anderson's actors seems to involve presenting outlines that can be colored in by the audience's crayons -- assisted, of course, by the occasional sharp line of dialog in Anderson and Roman Coppola's screenplay.

Toward the end of the movie, one adult -- a scoutmaster played by Anderson vet Jason Schwartzman -- offers to marry Sam and Suzy, cautioning them to think seriously about what they're doing. This bit of silliness provides an instance in which Anderson's approach works well. Schwartzman's offer makes no sense. but it connects Sam and Suzy with a co-conspirator who's willing to accept their view of things.

At one point, I wondered whether Suzy -- with her affectless delivery -- and Sam -- with his goggle-eyed glasses -- might not be more at home in an artfully drawn comic strip than in a movie. During their lovers' flight, Suzy invites Sam to French kiss and touch her breast. Sam complies, but in the typically inexpressive fashion that Anderson favors. Suzy and Sam don't seem like kids discovering their sexuality; they're puppets in Anderson's playhouse.

All of this builds toward a major flood of the island, which makes sense because Sam and Suzy met while Suzy was preparing for an appearance in an amateur production of Britten's opera Noye's Fludde (Noah's Flood). I guess if Sam and Suzy had their way, the Earth would be flooded, the rest of humanity would be wiped out and they would walk hand-in-hand onto a waiting ark, sole survivors of a necessary conflagration.

Sam, in particular, is a kind of outcast. Until a heroic turnaround by one of his fellow Scouts, he's scorned by boys his own age. Even the foster parents who had been caring for Sam don't want him back.

Those who enjoy visiting these Anderson-created worlds seem to like them very much. I appreciated Moonrise Kingdom in a whacky sort of way that did not always equate with either enjoyment or illumination. My feelings about Anderson's work remain unresolved.

If you're looking for a different take on the '60s -- or more precisely -- if you're interested in the continuing ramifications of life in the '60s, you may want to check out Peace, Love and Misunderstanding, director Bruce Beresford's seriocomic look at the present-day conflict between a mother (Jane Fonda) and the adult daughter (Catherine Keener) she raised during the free-and-easy, pot-smoking '60s. Faced with divorce, Keener's Diane -- a successful New York attorney -- leaves Manhattan with her two children (Elisabeth Olsen and Nate Wolf) to visit her mother in Woodstock, N.Y., an iconic locale for peace, love, protest and marijuana. The resentment of children with "hippie" parents is a legitimate and under-explored subject, but Peace, Love and Misunderstanding mostly blows it. Fonda's character comes off as a shrill parody of '60s values, a woman stuck in a time warp -- but confident that it's the right place to be. Meanwhile, Diane's son Jake (Wolf) runs around Woodstock with a video camera, exercising his wannabe filmmaker muscles and introducing the dreaded film-within-a-film conceit. Peace, Love and Misunderstanding stands as an example of what happens when a lot of talented people are shackled to second-rate material. Much pot is smoked, but this one doesn't inhale deeply when it comes to working through its characters' very real issues.

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